By James A. Haught
Millionaire evangelist Rick Warren is correct: Having a purpose-driven life gives people meaning and goals. But he’s absurd in claiming that purpose comes from gods and devils, heavens and hells, miracles and messiahs, and the like.
I think the purpose that drives science-minded freethinkers can be summed up in a single word: honesty. It’s dishonest to claim to know supernatural things that nobody can know. Honest people want evidence, and don’t embrace magical assertions without it. Simply to be honest about beliefs — that’s a powerful motive imparting purpose to skeptics.
Sixty years ago, when I was a gawky young news reporter, my mentor was a tough city editor who was a clone of H.L. Mencken. He sneered at hillbilly preachers in our Appalachian Bible Belt. As a naive wisdom-seeker, I asked him:
“You’re right that all this Bible-thumping is silly — but what’s the truth? Why is the universe here? Why does life exist? Why are we all doomed to die? What’s the meaning of everything? What truthful answer can an honest person give?”
He eyed me squarely and replied: “You can say: I don’t know.”
Bingo. That rang a clear bell in my mind, and it never left me. It showed me how to be honest in the face of bewilderment. An honest person admits inability to comprehend ultimate reality.
Later, as I studied, I learned that this same conclusion was reached by Ancient Greece’s great Epicurus — and by Omar Khayyam in his profound Rubaiyat — and by Jean Paul Sartre and fellow modern existentialists — and by Zorba the Greek, whose questions exposed “the perplexity of mankind” — and by multitudes of other earnest seekers trying to discern what underlies our existence.
The honesty worldview can give you a sense that you are supporting factual reality. It makes you advocate science, democracy and human rights as the best tools to improve humanity. It gives you a personal identity — something worth fighting for.
Honesty makes us realize there’s no trustworthy proof that our minds will continue living after our bodies die. As far as we can tell, each person’s psyche is created by an individual brain — and dies when the brain does. Accepting the coming oblivion requires courage, but it’s the only honest stance. Wishing for immortality is self-deception.
When I foresee the abyss, the blackness of death ahead, it breeds existential gloom — a sense that everything ultimately is meaningless — a bleak awareness that our struggles soon will be forgotten and ignored, like those of past generations. I’m haunted by the bard’s rant:
“All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Pointless floundering, soon to vanish into the forgotten past. That’s a dismal summation, and it rings true. Yet we nonetheless can develop purpose-driven lives that hold the gloom in abeyance, while we slog onward.
We gain purpose by raising children, working at a satisfying job, sharing our life with a fond spouse or lover, relishing the serene joys of nature, etc. But those pursuits don’t address the ultimate questions that cannot be answered and never go away.
Historian Gleb Tsipursky of Ohio State University says trusting one’s own sense of integrity and belief in the scientific method imparts value.
“We as secular people can use science to fill that emptiness deep in the pit of our stomach that comes from a lack of a personal sense of meaning and purpose,” he wrote. “We can use science to answer the question: What is the meaning of life for you?”
He cited studies showing that people with strong convictions have better health and more happiness. “Discover your own sense of life purpose and meaning from a science-based, humanist-informed perspective,” he urged.
A wag replied: “My purpose in life is to feed my cat.” Well, simply ignoring the profound questions is a legitimate way to cope — but some of us can’t stop wondering. We know we will never find answers, yet we crave firm beliefs to keep us struggling onward.
The only approach that works for me is to repudiate imaginary spirits and support humanistic reality as the basis of life and society. Battling for secular humanist truths gives you purpose, so you have little time to feel gloom about the approaching end — and no time to wonder whether everything is meaningless in the long run.
Ever since Ancient Greece, the world’s greatest minds have searched for the purpose of it all — to no avail. But each secular humanist can acquire a personal purpose by embracing honesty and the scientific method. We can have purpose-driven lives by opposing self-proclaimed holy men who write books like The Purpose-Driven Life.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)